Whitten’s Timber Yard

Whitten Timber in Peckham is the current base for the Whitten family business. Starting in 1919, first from barrows and later shops in Sumner Road, they later moved to a timber yard on the Peckham branch of the canal in Canal Head (now Peckham Square), then Eagle Wharf and finally a purpose-built store. But Whitten’s was only one of dozens of such yards, distributing vast quantities of  timber imported through Surrey Docks from the Baltic, Scandinavia and around the world.

Photo of timber barges on the Surrey Canal

Floating timber at Peckham’s Canal Head. Look closely and see the floating plank in the shape of an arrow with Whitten Timber on it. Follow the arrow to Whitten’s yard at the time on Eagle Wharf.

Whitten Timber is a family run business and is one of the longest serving timber traders in Peckham.

Whittens was originally founded by Mr Whitten Senior on Sumner Road in 1919, operating from barrows and later shops and initially selling firewood collected from the vast numbers of empty wooden ammunition boxes that came back from the First World War. The business was soon selling softwoods which arrived in horse drawn Thames barges along the canal towpaths from the Surrey Docks at Rotherhithe, where the timber had been shipped from around the world.

One of Mr. Whitten’s two sons, William – known as WH – took over in 1933. WH went mobile, using a hand-pulled track cart to make deliveries around south London to help enable the company to expand. By 1935, WH Whittens was registered as a limited company trading from Canal Head warehouse – now the site of Peckham Pulse leisure centre.

The Whittens have always been an inventive family and WH devised a bicycle powered cutting saw, by replacing the back wheel with a belt drive attached to a circular saw. The invention allowed timber to be sawed quickly and production duly increased.

During the Second World War, WH was discharged after being injured at Normandy, returning home to a blitzed Peckham. By the end of the 1950s, WH had expanded the business again, obtaining Footbridge Wharf along the Grand Surrey Canal (now known as the Bridge to Nowhere in Burgess Park). WH had three sons, and Robert joined his father’s business in 1959.

Photograph of Robert Whitten with paintings and photographs of the Whitten forebears

Robert Whitten with his Whitten ancestors.

By the 1960s, business in the area was affected by the decline of Surrey Docks, and this had a severe impact on the Grand Surrey Canal which was closed and in 1972 and was filled in. By this time Robert Whitten was operating the family business from a timber shop at Canal Head, near the site of Peckham Square and Library. (The Library was designed by Will Alsop of Alsop & Störmer and won the Stirling Prize for architecture in 2000.)

Despite the canal’s closure, Whittens continued to thrive commercially, helped by the expanding DIY market. In 1980, business moved again to a nearby warehouse in Eagle Wharf, and Whitten’s final move in the early 2000s was next door, further up the canal to a brand new retail warehouse.

Today Whitten Timber is run by Robert’s two sons John and James – the fourth generation. However if you pop in you’ll see that Robert is never too far from the sales counter!

Poscript

On 23rd March 2020, with the Covid19 pandemic just taking off in the UK, all this history came to an end. The business finally closed down, as the site had been sold for redevelopment, and the canal’s last traditional business disappeared. There were hopes that part of the business could rent space with a local builders merchant, but Whittens is now in liquidation.

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6 thoughts on “Whitten’s Timber Yard

  1. Hi there, some facts not quite right here.
    The present building was erected much later than 1982 – it is on the same site but smaller.
    I’ve used Whittens since 1985 and they were still in the old building. Till at least 1997?
    When they were moving and had the new place built we used it for a Rollapalluza event!
    Whittens have supported Herne Hill velodrome and track cycling for an age

    1. You are right, Judith. After our big fire at Canal Head in 1976, we moved into Eagle Wharf, vacated by Henry Davis, timber merchants, who moved out due to the closure of the Surrey Docks. We never traded in Peckham Hill Street until this move. I, the oldest son of WH Whitten Jnr, took early retirement in 1990. Whittens moved up the road (north) during the early 90s, to the current site.

      Richard Whitten, La Romieu, France.

  2. They are the best and maybe only dedicated timber merchant for miles! With extensive knowledge.

  3. Very sad to see the family business of the Whitten family – Whitten Timber closed down and to see the building of flats being built on the site. I used to use it quite a lot back in the day. Though i came from the decorating trade there was always a client who wanted a wooden gate, fence, or yard gates built, so i used to go with my measurements, show it to one of Roberts sons or one of the co workers and they would cut the pieces for me, there was always Robert the father aways in the background shouting out making sure all was in order, he knew all about every piece of wood – design, make, whatever you were looking for, he knew what people wanted and his sons also. The knowledge that family knew about wood was unbelievable and mind you they were not cheap – the materials but it was the real deal and you got what you paid for and much more with the information it came with, i shall miss the family and the site from which the family building once stood and to me there should be a plaque in the Whitten family name for what they meant and represented to the community of Peckham in all the years they traded…….WITH LOVE AND RESPECTS FROM MOSES…

    1. Hear hear! I agree with every word you say! I used them loads and just got in in the nick of time – I built a whole campervan interior from their supplies in the final summer they were open. A lasting memorial to them! Maybe we should have a public one too as you say – anyone agree?!

  4. I used to live in Peckham but didnt have need to venture up Peckham Hill St, so didn’t know about Whittens. It wasn’t til I bought a flat in Camberwell with a 30 year old carpet, which when I lifted it, dust poured from it, that I discovered some of the floorboards needed replacing. They were 18x220mm section and B&Q only offered 20x200mm section, leaving a good cm gap either side of each plank. En route back from B&Q I thought I’d console myself with some grub, and was cycling down Peckham Hill St (oh, bhs! Might get myself a new pair of jim-jams while here ;-)). And I spied a sort of builders yard carpark as I approached Peckham. Lo and behold, the Gods were shining on me that day. A wood shop. I made some enquiries. Ordered a ship load of boards. And Whittens delivered them kindly and whithin the price. All cut to perfection with the addition of some highly useful long 6mm wedges so close and gaps, though which needed pinning in place (chiselling or not rasping, what’s that tool you used to learn about using in woodwork to cut a long sliver off wood?). Take it down slowly without splitting it. Anyway it need a lot of that. But the finished product is still there today and all cos of Whitten Timber. Thanks fellers. It was a sad day to see you go. 🙁

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